Monday, April 18, 2011

It was only supposed to be "a three hour tour"

One of the cool things about being in Amazon Vine is seeing all the new books beforehand and getting to read advance copies of some of them. It's kind of fun to look at bookstore shelves full of new releases that I've already heard about, and sometimes already read. Occasionally one will be a real hit and end up on best-seller lists for months. A book I read last November, Unbroken, is at the top of those lists now, and not only have friends recommended it to me (not knowing) but I've overheard others recommending it as well.

But not all good WWII stories involve soldiers facing danger in combat situations. As the war in the Pacific was winding down many found themselves far from the action in support roles, and sometimes they even took time to do sightseeing. For those stationed in Hollandia on the island of New Guinea the sight to see was an isolated valley high in the mountains that they dubbed Shangri-La after the fictional paradise in the novel Lost Horizon. Instead of peaceful monks the valley was populated with what was thought to be six foot tall headhunters and cannibals. And for those lucky enough to get a coveted seat on a flight over the valley, it was a look back into a lush and verdant stone age. But on May 13, 1945 a plane named the Gremlin Special loaded with 24 officers, enlisted men, and women (WACs) crashed into the dense jungle on a mist-shrouded hillside. Only three survived and their only option was to climb down into the valley facing an unknown reception by the warrior tribes.

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War IIAlthough descriptions for Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff overstate the drama somewhat, there was still plenty of danger. The survivors - a pretty WAC named Margaret Hastings suffered painful burns; Sergeant Ken Decker was burned but also had a gaping head wound; and Lieutenant John McCollom, the least outwardly wounded, had lost his twin brother in the crash - now faced starvation, disease, gangrene, and an uncertain rescue. Thrown into the story are a brave group of Filipino-American paratroopers led by a handsome American captain aching for a chance to prove himself, a former Hollywood actor better known for stealing jewelry and prodigious drinking, and the seemingly-primitive natives who wear long gourds to cover their... (ahem) manhood. Top it off with the most unconventional rescue plan imaginable and you have one of the stranger stories of the war.

While it's not the harrowing and wrenching drama found in Unbroken, Lost in Shangri-La is still a very compelling read. And Zuckoff has done a wonderful job of pulling together a wealth of information that is quickly becoming lost to the creeping jungle of time, from interviews, personal journals, and photos taken by those who were there. And he insightfully highlights the effects we sometimes unintentionally have on primitive but not necessarily savage peoples, leaving the reader to question if we've improved upon their warlike ways or not. A great book to add to your summer reading.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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